Monday, January 19, 2009

Freedom song

As more and more women in Kochi gain economic independence, marriages are the first casualty. Men are unwilling to accept the new confident, bold and aggressive woman. Instead, they yearn for the old doormat

By Shevlin Sebastian

Reena Jacob, 31, was drunk. At a New Year’s Eve party for her advertising firm on Cherai Beach, near Kochi, she had taken sips from everybody’s glass. Wearing skin-tight jeans and a red top, and black stiletto heels she began dancing frenziedly to the thumping techno beats arranged by a young DJ.

“On a whim, I wanted to listen to ‘You Are My Sonia’ from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’,” she says. So she told the DJ and waited for a while but he did not play it. She again requested the DJ but he ignored her.

Suddenly, Reena stormed into the DJ’s booth. Looking at the expression on her face, the 23-year-old DJ cowered at one corner, raising his hands to protect his face.

“I don’t know what my face looked like, but he shouted for help,” says a laughing Reena. Her colleagues, Rajan and Sunita rushed in and pulled her outside.

Reena, married to a chartered accountant, is a regular tippler at parties, social dos and at home. But Reena drinks for an unusual reason.

“It makes me horny,” she says. “Drinking makes me lose my inhibitions and, inevitably, I have a rocking session with my husband.”

The fuel for her sessions is vodka, mixed with orange juice or Sprite. “Vodka has a smooth taste in the mouth but when it goes down there is a fiery reaction,” she says. “I get a nice high.”

Surprisingly, Reena’s husband does not mind her drinking. “He is always thinking of the bonanza after that,” she says.

Reena’s friend, Prema scoffs at her comment. “I don’t need a drink to feel horny,” she says. “I am horny all the time.”

Both the women laugh.

Reena and Prema belong to a circle of upper middle-class women, whose husbands are businessmen or professionals. All of them are regular drinkers, with nearly all of them favouring vodka.

“Initially, my husband said, ‘If you like it go ahead. If not, just leave it,’” says Prema. “Gradually I learned to enjoy drinking. I like the kick and the feeling of being free.”

But feeling free has its side-effects. Reena complains that when she drinks at a local discotheque, “men think I am drunk and try to press their bodies against me. It’s disgusting.”

Meanwhile, after a hectic day at the office, journalist Liza Miriam, 35, heads for Loungevity, the lounge bar on Mahatma Gandhi Road, with colleagues. “It’s a nice way to unwind at the end of the day,” she says. Since Liza has a car she does not need to ask her husband to take her. “There is such a sense of freedom when you have your own vehicle,” she says. “I can stay out as long as I like.”

So, are women in Kochi changing? “They are,” says Liza. “Most of them are working and earning their own money. They feel confident and independent. For example, I don’t have to ask my husband for money if I want to buy something.”

But Reena argues that there is still exists a strong conservative base. She says she knows of women who ardently believe in the caste system. “If somebody tells me his name I will not be able to figure out what caste he is,” she says. “But these women will not only know the caste, but the sub-caste.”

Reena says the women who belong to the affluent class and have traveled abroad are broad-minded, confident, and liberal. “But that is only a small slice of society,” she says.

Another slice of society that has changed a lot is young women. “They go for weekend jaunts with their boyfriends, experimenting with sex, drugs and alcohol,” says Prema. “They are going out of control.”

Prema’s friend, Usha, runs a coffee shop. “As soon as the cafe opens at 9 a.m. college students come in,” says Prema. “Usha says she is scared to look at them because they kiss and cuddle in front of the waiters and the other customers. They don’t care a damn about who is watching.”

Reena says she has seen a young woman giving oral sex to her boyfriend at a restaurant. “That is how bold they have become in Kochi,” she says. “Essentially, nobody is preserving their virginity for their husbands any more.”

She pauses and says, “The only Virgin around is Virgin Airlines.”

Indeed, women are sacrificing their virginity at the altar of consumerism that is sweeping across the country. “These women want the most expensive gadgets,” says Prema. “They are willing to sleep around to get the money and don’t have any moral qualms. They say, ‘It is only a weekend fling, so why not?’”

Ironically, these ‘holier than thou’ thirty-somethings are also into flings themselves. “Our friend Shalini is married to an Army officer stationed in Kashmir,” says Reena. “Whenever we meet her she has love bites around her neck or ears.”

Says Prema, “Each time we point this out to her she says some insect or the other has bitten her… there are some busy insects in Kochi.”

The women burst out into loud giggles.

And what about Meenakshi, asks Prema. “This mother of two, an IT consultant, is a member of a fitness centre and all she does when she goes there is to talk to her boyfriend on the cell phone and fix up assignations,” she says.

Expectedly, this heady cocktail of an independent income, the collapse of traditional social mores and moral values, pompous and indifferent husbands and easy temptations have led inevitably to a significant side-effect: the rise in divorce rates.

Have hubby, will divorce

Lilly James, who works in a high-ceilinged office, beside the Ernakulam Town railway station, is one of the leading divorce lawyers in the city.

“If you compare the trends over the past twenty years many more women are now initiating divorce,” she says. “Undoubtedly, economic independence is allowing them to take this extreme step.”

The increasing confidence of women is also a threat to the men. In places like Kochi, daughters receive as much exposure as sons, especially in nuclear families. By the time she is 24 and ready for marriage, a young woman has a pronounced individuality.

“But when she gets married she suddenly loses this freedom,” says Lilly. “This surrender is very difficult to adjust to. This is one of the major reasons in the breakdown of the marriages of young educated women. They want a 50-50 sharing of the work at home which the husbands are unwilling to do.”

Lawyer Joseph Vadakel says that most working women spent 16 hours a day finishing all the tasks at work and home, but receive no help from their spouses. He says that husbands are still living in the past.

“They want to keep their wives under their thumb, but the women are unwilling to accept this second-class status,” he says. “Hence, they resort to divorce.”

However, the emancipation of women is not the only cause for the breakdown of marriages. Lilly says that in 70 per cent of the cases that she handles, the husband is an alcoholic.

“This can wreak havoc in a marriage,” she says. There are increasing instances of fraud. “Before the marriage, the men conceal the fact that they are suffering from a mental illness or life-threatening diseases like cancer. Some provide the wrong educational qualifications and lie about their jobs.”

Many nurses, who have married men in the Middle East or in America discover, to their horror, that their husbands are unemployed.

And the stress and strain of modern life is also taking its toll. “Most of the time husbands suffer from psychological problems and career pressures,” she says. “Because of this a lot of them are impotent and are unable to satisfy their wives. Surprisingly, these include highly educated people like engineers and doctors.”

On the flip side, men, who are keenly interested in sex, are addicted to unnatural acts and perversions. “Nowadays men want to do anal and oral sex,” she says. “The common complaint among women is the pressure put on them by husbands to perform oral sex. Ninety-nine percent of my clients are not interested in it, but they are forced to do it.”

Eventually they get tired and opt for divorce. (In a Kerala high court judgement in 1997, Justice K.A. Abdul Ghafoor held that the ‘insistence of unnatural sex, continued compulsions for oral sex, sex through anus, causing pain and physical injury, and to make the wife concede to such unnatural sex, amounts to cruelty under Section 10 of the Divorce Act’)

Lily points out another cause that is a source of suffering for the women: in the office she is smart, clever, responsible and powerful. “But when this same woman returns home she has to suppress her personality and become submissive in front of her in-laws and husband,” says Lily. “These contrasting roles take a toll on the woman. Most of the time the woman ignores her frustrations but, eventually, she has psychological problems. Or it leads to a marital breakdown.”

As more and more women enter the job market and as social values and structures collapse in an increasingly frenzied world the road ahead for marriage will be rocky and strife-torn.

Happiness will be as elusive as sunshine in the North Pole.

(Some names have been changed)

‘Young women are demanding more’
Says counselor Dr. Prakash Chandran A.

How have women in Kochi changed?
Most women are working these days and they are demanding more from their husbands. They don’t want a secondary status in the marriage. Many of them, in the 22 to 30 age group, come to see me within one month of their marriage.

There are misunderstandings between husband and wife and the in-laws tend to interfere a lot. They try to curb a woman’s independence. But I feel that both husband and wife are emotionally immature and not ready for marriage. There is something wrong with the upbringing.

What is that?
Because of nuclear families parents tend to overprotect their children and shield them from reality. That can cause a problem when they get married and have to tackle things on their own.

Is sexual inadequacy a big issue in marriages?

It is one of the major problems. There is a lack of knowledge of the right sexual techniques, to ensure that the partner is satisfied.

What is the recurring complaint in a marriage?
Husband and wife suspect each other of having an extra-marital affair. There are complaints that the spouse does not care. Other problems include obsession with career, financial tensions and conflicts on how to deal with children who have access to the Internet and mobile phones.

Do wives eventually go in for divorce?
After counseling they will make an attempt to solve their problems. But, eventually, around 40 per cent will go in for a divorce.

What advice would you give these women?
I try to encourage rational thinking. Misunderstandings arise because of a lack of communication between the spouses.

From the kitchen to the front yard

For centuries the Nairs in Kerala followed the matrilineal system. This is one of the few systems where women had the right to property and it passed from mother to daughter. They enjoyed respect and power similar to the women of ancient Egypt. Lineage is traced through the mother, and the children belong to the mother's family.

However, in the 19th century, the British reordered this system. The patriarch of the household became the source of all power. Suddenly the women were pushed to the sidelines. The control of property came into the hands of the man. That process accelerated in the late 19th and early 20th century when the Nair tharvad began to go through financial difficulties.

Meanwhile, male domination was already there in the Muslim, Christian, Namboothiri and the Ezhavas communities; they followed the patrilineal system.

Women have lost out but they fought back by taking advantage of educational opportunities. In the 1930s the Census Commissioner noted that highly educated women among the Nairs and the Syrian Christians preferred careers to marriage.

“If this trend continued, there is going to be a serious fall in birth rates and decline in population,” he said. But it never persisted and by the forties, marriage became the norm.

Some women highlighted the troubles they were going through. Lalithambika Antherjanam’s novel, 'Agnisakshi' described the frustrations, fears, and degradation of the Namboodiri women.

V. T. Bhattathiripad a well-known social critic and dramatist, encouraged widow marriage among Brahmins. He tried to change the conservative practices of the Namboodiri community and conducted the first mixed-race marriage.

Justice Anna Chandy became the first woman judge of India, while Kerala women excelled in international athletics: P.T. Usha, Shiny Wilson, M.D. Valsamma and Anju Bobby George, among others.

Throughout the decades of the 20th century, women were able to access higher education, enjoyed good health, a favourable sex ratio but their status remained much below that of the man. The unemployment rate among women was 28 per cent as compared to 15 per cent for the men.

A research survey did provide disquieting news. Around 52 per cent of the women needed permission to go to the market, while 74 per cent secured a yes from family or spouse to visit friends or relatives.

In the 21st century, the dominance of the male continues. Today, only a certain section of the educated upper middle and affluent classes are freer to do as they want, thanks to successful careers in IT, PR, designing and the media. They have no qualms about going to bars like Loungevity for a drink and discotheques like Tandav and spend their own money at the numerous shops on Mahatma Gandhi Road.

But, sadly, they are a minority.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

1 comment:

  1. The reporter has taken so much trouble to tell the world that education and economic independence has made women go "astray" causing the traditional marriage set up to crumble! How is that men in those pubs, in those extra marital affairs or sex in restaurants are absolved of damaging the social fabric? I don't think we've ever seen an article on men's education and economic independence tipping the marital bliss balance. Mostly because it is "accepted" for men to behave in such a way isn't it? The reporter is just mourning for what looks like the impending death of male chauvanism!